At the gas station this evening, I was approached by a young man who asked me, very politely, if I had a dollar to help him get some gas. His plaid shirt and khaki shorts were clean, but his car, parked at another pump, looked nearly as old as he was.
"Hold on and I'll check," I said.
I screwed the gas cap back on, replaced the nozzle, and went to look in my wallet. It was empty -- I'm a debit-card junkie and rarely carry much cash -- so I scrounged up a few quarters from the ashtray and handed them to him with an apology for not being able to give him more.
"That's okay," he said with a smile. "Thanks so much, you're a doll."
"Mom, what were you doing?" G asked as I got back into the car.
"Giving that man my quarters so he could buy gas," I said.
"But I need those quarters in case I see a gumball machine!" said G.
"Well, he probably needs them more," I said, and started the car. "What's more important? Buying gum or helping someone?"
"Helping someone," said G in tones of deep resignation.
I know half of you are most likely thinking You got played, and maybe I did. But my policy on panhandlers is this: If someone asks me for a dollar, and I have it, I give it to them. I've never gone out panhandling myself, but I've been poor enough for it to seem like a real option. I've lived in places where it wasn't unusual for embarrassed-looking neighbors to knock on the door and ask if I could spare a can of corn or beans, anything so they could give their kids some dinner. I know that it is possible to be a totally honest person, with or without a job, and still be so broke that a dollar can make a huge difference in your life. And even if nine out of ten people who ask me for that dollar are scam artists, I'd rather give it to all of them than risk missing the one who really needs it. If that makes me a soft touch or an easy mark, so be it. (By the way, had I ever doubted this approach, the incident of the amazing reappearing $10 bill would have changed my mind.)
For G, who has never known an instant's deprivation and is still young enough to be almost totally self-centered, it's difficult to understand why Mom would give perfectly good gum-machine quarters away to some guy at a gas station. I hope she reaches that point someday ... although preferably without the hard life experience that got me here. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, least of all the person I love most in the world.